From a strength training prospective, the most important role of the core is to provide stability between the upper and lower body and prevent injury during heavy lifting. Think about doing a barbell squat – if your obliques are weak or your abs are not firing, your lower back is going to have to carry more of the load than normal and your form will break down, resulting in an injury.
When considering the core strength demands of wrestling, a major function of the “core muscles” is to keep your body in good position as an outside force (i.e. your opponent) tries to manipulate you into a positional disadvantage. This is where movement based core stability exercises and anti-rotational movements become important. The key to most core exercises is “finding” your abs…and I’m not talking about pulling up your shirt and checking for them in the mirror. You have to be able to neurologically recruit and use the muscles in your core to stabilize and hold position so you don’t overcompensate with the muscles in your lower back or your hip flexors. Once you “feel” the abs start to give way, the exercise needs to end. Its better to take a mini rest mid set and be able to finish with perfect form than to power thru an exercise like Plank Band Rows after your abs are fatigued.
While I have used countless core exercises for wrestlers over the years – from the simple to the extreme – they all basically fall into 3 different categories. Below is a breakdown of each core movement category and an example of each.
Having strong abs is less about “crunching” and more about the ability to brace the muscles of the core and maintain pelvic and spinal stability. Plank positions require (and build) strength thru out the entire core, both front and back. It is important to brace the abs properly so the lower back does not carry the majority of the load.
Front Plank is similar to a push up position but you will rest on your forearms rather than your hands. Keep your abs tight and your back straight. A side plank is on one elbow with your feet stacked on top of each other. Keep your spine straight and your top arm extended towards the ceiling. The Superman Plank targets the posterior chain. Lay face down with your arms extended overhead. Tighten up your glutes and raise your legs and arms off the floor.
Application: hold positions for time, starting out with something easily attainable based on your strength and experience. My advanced athletes rotate thru plank positions for 6 minutes at the end of a lift or practice to build strength endurance thru out the entire core.
Barbell Rollouts, hyper extension, and GHRs are all tremendous stability strengtheners, but they deal primarily with strength in the sagittal plane. The core movements in this category help build anti-rotational strength as they are unbalanced or resistance comes from the frontal (one side or the other) plane. Anti-Rotational core strength, or the ability to resist tension from one side or the other, is crucial to being able to stay in position during hand fighting and scrambles. Anti-Rotational exercises are also great for eliminating strength imbalances and adaptations that occur from constantly pulling while in a split stance.
Plank Band Row
Get into a plank position with a band attached to a low rack in front of you. Grab the band with your arm fully extended and tension on the band. Perform a row, pulling your elbow towards your hip while maintaining proper alignment (do not raise or twist your hips). Repeat for both sides.
Application: I like to program sets of 8-12 reps per side, typically as an “active recovery” in between weighted Chin ups or even heavy pressing movements.
Just as important as being able to resist rotation is the ability to rotate forcefully. Many pulling and pushing movements in wrestling are actually rotational pulls due to the fact that you are either pulling with just one side of your body or simultaneously pushing and pulling.
Attach a band to a rack at shoulder height, grab it with both arms extended and step back until there is tension. Initiate the movement by stepping back and pivoting your body, rotating hard away from the band while keeping your one foot planted in the original position. Rotate back to the starting position then twist to the opposite side.
Application: This is a good one to pair with a posterior chain strength movement such as hyperextension or GHR, or in between functional movements like med ball slams or sled pushes. Sets of 5-10 per side.
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